The brick wall: No close encounters with Nintendo's indie exec

Senior contributor Brandon Sheffield has gotten up-close and personal with Sony and Microsoft's indie guys -- but when it comes to Nintendo, he hit a wall. He explores the issue in this editorial.
Originally published April 2014, just a few months prior to Adelman's departure from Nintendo. What are the tastes, backgrounds and experience of some of the biggest decision-makers at major console companies? Developer and senior contributor Brandon Sheffield attempts to speak to Nintendo's Dan Adelman, but he's stonewalled -- and instead, examines the company's challenges. Read the interview with PlayStation's Adam Boyes here and Microsoft's Chris Charla here. Those of you who have been following this series will know it was meant to introduce you to the heads of all three platform holders' indie initiatives, getting into some of their personal quirks, so you might better understand how to relate to them. And it would have, if Nintendo's corporate policy hadn't gotten in the way. Dan Adelman, the head of Nintendo's indie initiative, was not allowed to speak with us. This is the sort of corporate policy that perpetuates the stereotype that Nintendo doesn't work well with third parties, and is an emblem of Nintendo's reluctance to change and become more open as markets shift. As an indie developer, this is very troubling to me. I'll admit, this series of interviews is pretty fluffy. I'm giving each platform head a venue to humanize themselves, which is ultimately glorified PR. But at the same time, it's useful for indie developers to know who they're dealing with, and to know that there are actual humans working behind the scenes -- humans that you could get a beer with and talk to about a wide range of subjects. I think that's actually a really useful thing for all parties, because the more everyone understands each other, the more indies will feel at ease working with consoles, which means more games on the major platforms. It's certainly useful for me, as an independent developer myself, to know these people better. I have to call out the fluffiness of this series here, because that's what makes it so unfortunate that Nintendo chose not to be included. This interview could do nothing but help the cause, and all it would have taken was 30 minutes of Dan Adelman's time. I don't blame Adelman. I know him, and I know this is the kind of thing he would like to do. It wasn't his decision. It's Nintendo's policy not to privilege the individual. It's Nintendo's policy to keep messaging corporate, not personal. These policies originate all the way up in the Japanese office, as staff members continually tell me, but this approach is not the way of things today, and it shows how far behind Nintendo is in terms of its relationship with third party developers, and how it operates as a company: keeping everyone in check, rather than letting innovation and new ideas lead, as its executives keep saying they want to. It shows how far the company still has to go to prove to indies that we should be putting our games on its platform.

Wii Who?

Let's talk first about the climate Nintendo is in right now. The 3DS is doing rather well, but sales are trending down for the platform yearly. The Wii U is in much worse shape, by all accounts. It's difficult to get accurate Wii U sales numbers, since Nintendo has largely been touting units shipped, rather than sold, but estimates put it at around 6 million consoles. The Wii U is currently tracking at just over 50 percent of the Gamecube's sales for the same sales period. Now, Nintendo may well pick up speed, but it's not going to happen overnight, and it's not going to happen magically, and it's not going to happen without help. Mario has been a guaranteed system-mover for decades, but Nintendo's already released Super Mario 3D World, and it didn't give the Wii U the boost it needed. If Nintendo's own killer software isn't moving units, what's missing? Third parties, of course. EA has distanced itself, and Ubisoft has taken steps back from the console. Wii U's limited audience and limited growth isn't a very pleasing proposition for the big guys. So wouldn't it make sense for Nintendo to be courting indies a little harder? Wouldn't it make sense for Nintendo to want to put its "indie guy" front and center? You see, Sony and Microsoft are both funding indie games right now, and they're making a lot of noise about it. They're putting indies up on stage with them at every show, pushing them into the limelight. When you read articles about who "won" E3 2013, the answer was resoundingly Sony -- the company's image was reassuringly human, and player- and developer-friendly, in part because of its huge indie push. I'll admit it: When I saw all those indies up on Sony's stage, many of whom are my friends, I thought, "Hey -- I could be up there some day. That is a realistic thing that could happen to me some day." It sounds cheesy, but I had never really considered that before. It's reasonable to say, "Well, funding 50 indies doesn't make Sony nearly as much as one Call of Duty makes Activision." And that's true! But look at what Minecraft has done for Xbox 360. The game sold 12 million copies on the platform, as of April 2014. That's millions of dollars in Microsoft's pocket. And it's not just a money thing, either. Sony has gotten massive goodwill for its support of indies. A game like Journey, even if it doesn't make a dollar of your investment, is one of the biggest PR boons you can have. Flower was in the Smithsonian museum. You can't buy that kind of publicity -- unless you fund it, that is. A lot of smaller games are being funded for less than your average marketing budget, and the positive buzz you get from that kind of story is worth much more than some banner ads on a web site. And in terms of public developer support, well, consider my tiny games. When I released my first game for PlayStation Mobile, Sony gave me blog space on the front page of Microsoft's Chris Charla frequently blogs about the games he has been playing, or is looking forward to, and gave an unreleased game of mine a shout-out on the Major Nelson podcast. I'm relating this to my own games because they're quite small, and Sony and Microsoft have still found ways to talk about them. Their people are there to support developers; they're not kept away in hiding. And it's not like Microsoft and Sony just do this for me. They do it for many developers they support. They're very vocal about what you can do with their platforms, the fact they'll fund good projects, and the ways in which they'll try to put indies into the forefront. So then we get around to Nintendo. Aside from Renegade Kid and 2D Boy, It's difficult to think of many other indie developers Nintendo has put into the limelight. It is also not funding indies, or if it is, it's incredibly quiet about it. Its lead home platform isn't selling that well, so it's a bit more of a risk. Most developers I've spoken with don't know Dan Adelman, but most do know Adam Boyes. That is a big problem.

Prove it to me!

The majority of indies I've talked to that made games on Nintendo platforms did so because they simply love Nintendo. They played NES games when they were growing up, and having one of their titles on a Nintendo platform is a bit of a dream come true. But then the reality hits, and they have to make money, and then they port those games away to other platforms. I decided to speak with two eShop developers and one publisher to get some actual numbers. A developer of a 3D action game sold 1,000 units in the U.S., and 400 in Europe in their first month. They're hoping to eventually reach sales of 5,000. A developer of a casual game sold fewer than 3,000 units across EU and NA in six months, but got a similar number in Japan in just one month. The publisher I spoke to, which is very experienced in the eShop space, told me that with the sort of game I was pitching -- an action puzzle game -- I could expect an income ceiling of about $2,000, and I should plan accordingly. These are low numbers. It's possible for a savvy indie dev to increase those sorts of numbers and break the mold, but not without some serious marketing support and institutional help from Nintendo. Not without a better-integrated store, greater discoverability, and some space to actually talk about their games in the context of Nintendo's brand. Renegade Kid is an exception. The Austin, Texas studio has found success on the eShop, and Nintendo has supported it. But that support really does feel like a calculated exception on Nintendo's part, rather than the rule. Renegade Kid says it's ridiculous to say Nintendo is closed -- that you just have to go talk to the company. That's all well and good, but the other companies come and talk to you. They tell you what they're doing, they ask you to meet with them, and they invite you into the fold, and support you once you get there, even if you're a smaller developer like me. Again, don't mistake this for me disliking Nintendo's indie guy. Dan Adelman is great. He's personable, knowledgeable, and he is in fact the sort of guy you could have a beer with and talk about anything. But Nintendo's draconian corporate tactics keep him completely under rein. I've received word from a reliable source that Adelman is no longer allowed access to Twitter. You'll notice his last post was in October of last year. Apparently he wrote something along the lines of "I travel a lot, so I feel your pain," in response to someone saying they didn't like the region locking of the 3DS. This was viewed as unacceptable in Nintendo's eyes, so there you go. All they had was that Twitter account, to talk to indie devs. There are no blogs, no casual podcasts, only corporate-created messaging from Nintendo Direct. No more public voice for indie development from within Nintendo. That's it. It's gone.

The uphill climb

For my part, I didn't play the NES growing up. I don't have that nostalgia for Nintendo that others do. More and more young developers grew up with the PS2 as their first console. People like this need to be convinced to make games for Nintendo's platforms. We simply don't have that default love of Nintendo that drives others. And those eShop numbers are not convincing. The Wii U's sales numbers are not convincing. The lack of funding is not convincing. Nintendo's digital storefront is unwieldy, fragmented across platforms, and sports poor discoverability -- that is not convincing. Its antiquated policies toward management of online friends are not convincing. And a lack of interest in even speaking directly to developers publicly is not convincing. When I received the almost form-letter style notice from Nintendo's public relations team that Adelman would not be allowed to speak with us, this was my reply: "This is a bit unfortunate, but I do understand. This article is about putting a human face on the indie initiatives of the big three platform holders, and we've already got Adam Boyes and Chris Charla with some real humanizing words. I understand it's against Nintendo's policy to privilege the individual, but here you have Sony and Microsoft saying to developers, 'Hey, this isn't some big faceless corporation. Here are a couple guys you could just shoot the breeze with, and oh, they happen to run the indie initiatives for their respective giant companies.' Unfortunately, by not participating, Nintendo will continue the stereotype it has perpetuated for 15 years (give or take) of being unfriendly and unindulgent of third party developers, regardless of whether it's true. "Now, say you have a console that hasn't exactly inspired massive developer and thus consumer confidence. Activision isn't going to spend millions on an exclusive. In cases like this, developers with lower budgets but who take interesting risks tend to be who you want to rely on. That's how interesting surprise hits like World of Goo come about, after all. Wouldn't that seem like something to encourage? I am not currently encouraged to release my own games on Nintendo hardware, and Dan is the closest thing to convincing me. He is literally the only one with the power to do so. "I am saying this more as an indie developer myself, less as a representative of Gamasutra. Nintendo's PR should care more about this issue than I do. You need indies right now, they are who have the ability to make games quickly for your console. They can give you talking points, and success stories, and the ability to move into the digital future instead of being stuck in the retail past. "So I do understand why Nintendo has turned down this particular opportunity, but this understanding makes me sad to see that Nintendo has not yet learned to love developers, who someday, maybe, might be the ones to turn this ship around. I can't change your whole policy overnight, but baby steps such as letting Dan be a human in front of the game development community feel like a really good thing, no? "This is not a personal attack against you, but I do think that this is the wrong stance for PR to be taking in general in times like these." Here is the response I received back: "Really appreciate the background and insights, Brandon! And looking forward to any future opportunities. Have a good weekend!" It's dismissive and troubling. Nintendo, as I've mentioned, doesn't want to put any individual in the limelight. They prefer to let the company as a whole be its own representative. And that's the trouble. The company is being its own representative, and it's publicly representing itself quite poorly to developers. It is representing itself as a big, impenetrable box. Nintendo could get away with that when it was doing gangbusters, but can it get away with it now? As Chris Kohler said in a Wired article from December, "You’d think they’d be a natural fit for the lower-powered Wii U, and yet despite Nintendo’s push for more indie content, there isn’t much of that happening either." The problem is that Nintendo's "push" is "Hey, we're here! We've got a platform! Put your games on it!" And that simply isn't enough. Show us why we should make games for your platform, Nintendo. Prove to us that you'll support us when we get there. Talk to us. Unlock a bit of funding for some key creatives in the indie space, and talk it up. Let Dan Adelman speak. Prove to us that Nintendo consoles are where our games should be. While your corporate policy blocks you from doing something as simple as answer one silly email that makes you look good, I'm afraid you won't be able to. [Update:] I erroneously stated that Nintendo did not announce that it was free to publish Unity games on the Wii U. They did in fact announce that at the Game Developers Conference in 2013.

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